People like to talk badly about covers of popular songs or disqualify them from being considered art because they seem like a glorified version of karaoke. And true, much cover music doesn’t exactly improve on the original and just ends up polluting the radio and other music streaming services (there are way too many versions of “All I Want for Christmas is You” on Spotify). However, different renditions of certain songs can provide the listener with a new perspective, or make a forgettable song totally memorable.
Admittedly, there are singers out there who cover songs without adding a new twist on them and they shouldn’t be praised. They are, essentially, capitalizing off of someone else’s work. However, how are singers who don’t write their own songs or stick to a formula to create popular music any different? Much like how there are factors that distinguish bad original music from good original music, there are standards for cover music as well. In order for them to be worthy of praise, they should be different from the original in terms of the tone and feelings they convey.
Take for example Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” which was originally written and performed by Otis Redding. Franklin’s version of “Respect” has been hailed as a feminist anthem, while Redding’s is more aligned with the more traditional and oppressive gender roles at the time of its release. By singing the song from a woman’s perspective, Franklin changes its entire meaning and ultimately appeals to a different demographic. Her version of the song is still being played today and has completely overshadowed the original version, which would be considered misogynistic in our contemporary society.
When new music seems to be released daily, it’s easy for many great songs to be pushed into irrelevancy. However, when artists cover old songs, they introduce them to a younger audience and increase the song’s life expectancy. In some cases, some cover songs have become more popular than the original versions, such as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (originally by Robert Hazard) and Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” (originally by King Harvest). If anything, cover versions are simply enhanced versions of the original.
A common argument against cover artists is that much of what they do doesn’t require much creative initiative. However, in order to effectively change the tone and melody of a song, it does take some musical knowledge and skill. Furthermore, many artists combine two songs together to emphasize a particular theme in each song or create a lyrical story. Eastside’s “Ellie,” a mash-up of Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” and Chris Brown’s “Loyal” is a prime example, since it artfully combines songs from different genres while still conveying themes of infidelity and heartbreak.
A personal favorite of mine is Bastille’s “No Angels,” which overlays the lyrics from TLC’s “No Scrubs” onto the instrumental from The xx’s “Angels.” There is also dialogue from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” inserted throughout the track, which mainly featured lines spoken by the film’s antisocial villain Norman Bates. The song is a fun mash up of old and new, and adds a more sinister and solemn twist to “No Scrubs.” The original simply declares the undesirability of “scrubs,” while Bastille’s version adds a new dimension and paints Bates, or entitled mama’s boys, as examples of them.
Evidently, cover music does not always have to simply be revivals of old songs, but can be used as materials to create something new. While songs like “No Angels” and “Ellie” are not completely original, it does require a particular level of inventiveness to be able to combine two different songs and produce something coherent and pleasant to listen to.
Cover music receives a lot of flak, but much of original, popular music isn’t perfect either. Artists steal from each other all the time, and the music industry isn’t exempt from such a practice. Whether something is art or not isn’t determined by its originality — but rather by how creative and meaningful it is.